A 21st Century White Elephant
Or: On Receiving a Bonsai Tree as an Anniversary Present

Hey there Benign Reader– I’ve missed you. You, me? Yeah… (Said in Elmo voice. Elmo voce!) I’ve been thinking about marriage lately. Mine, specifically, and the intolerable burden of attending to the metaphors associated with it. I’m speaking of the bonsai tree my cunningly creative father gave us on our second wedding anniversary.

Who got a present? What's a second anniversary? Did I get something on my second anniversary? I think I'm due a present for my second anniversary.

Who got a present? What’s a second anniversary? Did I get something on my second anniversary? I think I’m due a present for my second anniversary.

It’s a great anniversary gift idea, I’ll grant you: “Take this bonsai tree and care for it with a tender heart, just as you should tend to your marriage.” It’s clearly intended metaphorically, as well as, you know, botanically. But what if you have a keen sense of metaphor paired with a black thumb?

I am morally obliged to keep this tree alive. Nay, not simply alive; it must thrive. Yet, I’ve been known to kill philodendrons—the heartiest house plant extant—with my earnest attentions. How am I going to keep this tree going?

The problem isn’t simply that I’m ignorant of bonsai care; I’m also uninterested in learning about it. It’s like financial planning; I know it’s important, but GOD is it boring. I’ll rank bonsai education ahead of anything to do with money management, but it still ranks below my Netflix queue.

When I'm married, I'll tend to it like a mother tends to her baby. Until something cuter comes along. Kitty!

When I’m married, I’ll tend to it like a mother tends to her baby. Until I grow bored. Oh look– a kitty!

Did you read what I just wrote? Caring for my bonsai tree doesn’t interest me; I’d rather watch Orange is the New Black. Now replace bonsai tree with marriage and join me in my bondage. There is nothing I can do, say, or think with respect to that bonsai, that isn’t automatically a reflection of my actions, words, and thoughts about my marriage. Witness:

  • Is my marriage too dry? Maybe it’s supposed to be dry. I don’t want to drown it, though… maybe it’ll be stronger if I just ignore it for now.
  • My marriage is outgrowing its pot. I already repotted it once—do I have to again? How long does this repotting continue? Maybe it’s like A Fish Out of Water; instead of repeatedly giving it a bigger pot, I should just feed it less.
  • I think I’m supposed to prune my marriage from time to time, but where do I make the cuts? And how can I be sure cutting will promote growth? This just goes against all my instincts—better just to let it go.
  • Can my marriage survive outdoors?
  • I’m supposed to dust my marriage?! When will the insanity cease? Water doesn’t cut it—should I use Simple Green? Maybe a terrarium would have been a better idea.
  • I can display my marriage in this airy spot where others can view it and the sun can drench it, but then the kids will climb over it and the cat will chew on it and puke up the pieces later. Tucking my marriage into a dark corner seems the safer bet.
  • My marriage keeps shedding leaves, but it doesn’t seem to have any glaring bald spots so it’s probably meant to be that way.

Thank you for the clever anniversary gift, Papa! I owe you one.

The state of my marriage?

The state of my marriage?

Before I go, here’s a little reminiscence Husband and I shared recently:

Hey Husband, remember that time we invited the neighbor boy over and let all three kids play, unattended and with semi-permanent paints?

Yeah… that was memorable.

We were so young.

It was 30 minutes ago.

Do you think we’ll have to replace the dry wall?

I should tidy things up around here… When was the last time I looked at any of those links on the right? And the banner at top… you’d never know the Kitten is actually a walking human being now. There’s a defunct countdown in the bottom margin, and those FAQs aren’t writing themselves. Though, actually… I think FAQs are supposed to write themselves, yeah? Got any questions for me? And before you go there: The meaning of life is 42 and the average annual rainfall of the Amazon river basin is 80 inches.

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Maybe it’s Fitting that my Academic Scholarship was Half that of the Illiterate Jock’s Athletic Scholarship.

Folks, I’ve been trying to wrap up this blog post for over a month now. I’m stuck at the part where I compare Puppy’s behavior when we’ve completely disempowered him to that of the citizens of Ferguson, MO after an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by a white police officer there. It’s a classic case of overreaching; I’m hoping to make a profound point with this analogy, but I don’t know what that point is. Am I critiquing parenting practices? Am I commenting on culture and social justice? Or am I merely observing a psychological tennis match between oppressors and oppressed?

Oppressors or oppressed?

Oppressors or oppressed?

While I dither over the so-what, Ferguson has given way to ISIS in the headlines, and the kiddos have given me heaps of blogging content that I’ve had to shelve because I can’t start a new post until I’ve finished this one. So, how about we make this a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure post? I’ll throw up what I have thus far, and when we get to the narrative fork in the road, you tell me which tine to take. Brilliant! I get to wash my hands of this malingering metaphor while you get to shoulder the editorial burden. I’m sure this is a wildly successful approach to growing my readership.

A Decent Opening

When last I blogged, Puppy was just coming up on four-and-a-half years old. Now I see we’ve passed his four-and-three-quarters birthday* and I ought to accept that my blog-every-five-days goal is dead in the potty water.

I have lots to share from the last three months. Let’s begin with a transcript of last night’s bedtime conversation with Puppy:

Puppy: Which is bigger: an airplane, or a really, really, really, really, really, big head? A TALL head—a really tall, big head.

intrepid librarian: Do you mean a tall head like from the game, “How Tall Am I?”

Puppy: No, I mean a really super big head you can climb on.

il: Like the big head statue at the sculpture park?

Puppy: Yeah, like a statue! A really tall, big statue.

il: Well, let me ask you something: Is the statue bigger than an airplane?

Puppy: No! Covers his eyes in anguish. You’re supposed to guess which is bigger!

I should probably mention, here, that Puppy missed his nap today, so his drama quotient defies scientific notation.

il: Cracking up because he is really pissed off, and a four-year-old’s portrayal of pissed-off is hilarious.

Puppy: Get dada; I want dada.

il: Well, what kind of plane is it? A jet plane? A seaplane? A toy plane?

Puppy: A jet plane.

il: And is it bigger than a statue head?

Puppy: Rending his hair and flopping his body side-to-side. You’re not playing it right! I want dada! I want dadaaaaaa!

il: Okay! Okay! The plane is bigger.

Puppy: Noooo! I said it was a really, really, really big head! Wailing into his hands. Get dada; I want dada.

il: No, come on Puppy—give me another one; I’ll do better.

Heated discussion about the rules of the game, whether my wrong answer actually ends the round, or if I’m meant to repeat it whilst pretending it’s a brand new day.

il: Raising my voice to cut through his whining. Which is bigger: an ant or a duck?

Puppy: A duck. Smiles; sits back up. Which is bigger: a tree or a bird?

il: I really want to ask him if he means a bonsai tree.

Puppy: Which one’s bigger, mommy? A tree or a bird?

il: We have a bonsai tree in the house; he could mean a bonsai.

Puppy: Mommy! Tree or bird?

il: Ostriches? Baby Christmas trees? I’m starting to crack up again.

Puppy: Mommy?!?! Beginning to panic.

il: A tree. Pride swallowed. Okay, which is bigger: a single blade of grass or your Big Blue Bear?

Puppy: Big Blue Bear. Happy that mommy is sane again. Do another one.

il: It’s your turn to do one for me.

Puppy: No, you have to do… counting his fingers… three to make five, and then I do one more to make five.

il: That doesn’t even make sense. It’s your turn.

Puppy: No! I did four and you do two and I do two to five!

il: Dude. Which is bigger: Two or five?

Puppy: Nooooo! We’re playing with stuff, not numbers!

il: Christ. Which is bigger: my imagination or the universe?


Somehow, I thought messing with my kids would be more enjoyable. My dad always seemed to get such a kick out of it.

Who, me?

Who, me?

And here’s an outtake from this summer’s best Babes, Out of the Mouths of entry:

Puppy: I have to poop! Doing the pee-pee dance.

il: Okay! The bathroom is right over here. (We had just arrived at a vacation house we’d rented for the weekend, by the way.)

Puppy: Runs in, slams the door. Immediately reopens the door. The toilet is too small! Clutching his bottom and dancing from foot to foot.

il: Um, okay. There’s another toilet in this room – go!

Puppy: Runs in, slams the door. Immediately reopens the door. This one’s too small, too!

il: Those are the only toilets we have!

Puppy: Looks back at the toilet perplexedly, still bouncing. But, what if I have a lot of poop?

il: Well, how about you flush your poop before you wipe yourself clean? Then you flush the toilet paper separately…

Puppy: Closes the door. Immediately reopens the door. Guys, we’re going to need a bigger toilet.

I may be romanticizing the memory, but I recall he delivered the last line absolutely dead-pan, à la Roy Scheider. He did eventually poop in the too-small toilet, and he emerged from the bathroom a fourth time—this time buck-naked—to worry aloud that the toilet will clog when he flushes. But it flushed just fine. And no, I never did get a look at the load of poop he put in it.


A Perfectly Adequate Segue

The Puppy is as adorable as ever, but his tyrannical bouts are increasing in number. The Urban Liberal Parenting Handbook assures me this is normal for a 4.5-year-old, but I find I don’t need the handbook; I already know it’s normal, at any age. Of course it is—Puppy’s loudest, howlingest, most enraged episodes erupt when we (Husband and I) have completely disempowered him. When we take away his negotiation chips and put up the impermeable wall of parental authority. Oh, he’ll prod for a weakness in our resolve—he’ll try to make us laugh, or give us the lips-and-eyebrows face that’s impossible to stay serious in front of; he’ll offer to obey in exchange for five more minutes of play, or after he’s parked all of his cars. Eventually, he’ll try to muscle his way out of whatever hold we’ve put him in—and if we’ve gotten that far, if we’re manhandling him, I can’t help but feel we’ve taken a misstep somewhere. How is his ensuing rage any different from that of the citizens of Ferguson, MO? And if that analogy is apt, who’s the tyrant now?

I'm sure we'll have it all figured it out by the time this one discovers obstinacy. Too late.

Not a tyrant.

In our defense, we’re tired. And we do get it right a solid 85% of the time: we’ve established the rules and the reasons for them, communicated them repeatedly and at his level, and consistently imposed the penalties we’ve agreed are the consequences of infraction, yada, yada, yada. Another 10% of the time we just avoid the situation altogether, either by ignoring the infraction or giving in granting him clemency. But it’s that lingering 5% that makes me doubt all my parenting decisions—that makes me feel I’m on the wrong side of history.

This is Where I Lose My Way

And it’s maddeningly easy to take the despotic path—far easier than it is to parent well. We’ve known this since Arthurian times; the sword of peace is heavier, more difficult to wield than the sword of war. Negotiation is grueling; “Because I said so,” is uncomplicated. But if I exercise Because-I-Said-So parenting, am I contributing to a generation of tyrants? Or lemmings to tyrants? Which is worse?

Dude. Character-building is hard.

Wasn’t This Supposed to be About Disempowerment?

As the daughter of a sociologist, I’ve long leaned toward the Nurture side of the Nature vs. Nurture debate: our characters evolve in response to cultural cues. I might have given a slight nod to environmental influences outside the sociological, but genetics had zero bearing on personality in my book. Husband is a biologist in his alternate life, and he stands firmly on the side of Nature—especially when observed through the lens of evolutionary biology. It’s been a happy little dichotomy in our marriage—a source of lively, well-mannered debate.

But then we had kids and I realized that what comes out is what you get.

See what I mean? I did not MAKE her eat on the floor.

See what I mean? I did not MAKE her eat on the floor.

WCOIWYG?! That’s My Message?

Culture just flips a bunch of switches in our brains—which, yes, may be what keeps us all from turning into psychopaths, but that’s about the extent of culture’s influence.

I’m Not Even Sure I Believe What I Just Wrote, but I Have to Bring This Mess to a Conclusion

So when Puppy is howling in impotent rage, it’s because culture failed to activate the region of his brain that knows what’s good for it? For the love of freshmen English composition…



What Path Should I Have Taken?

  1. Deconstruct various parenting manuals’ theories for handling in-your-face toddler-obstinacy; mock ruthlessly.
  2. Explore roots of racial tension in US history and compare to societal expectations for modern parenting practices; submit for doctoral thesis review.
  3. Wait for some traumatic, personal event to render the topic moot, then ditch the composition to report on more pressing matters. Something like… I don’t know—the Kitten breaking her leg?**
  4. Switch gears at “despotic path,” quote Pol Pot or the latest Republican nimrod, launch into an apoplectic tirade against mom-on-mom hating, justify poor parenting decisions as infrequent and really not at all like Pol Pot or Republicans.

Please write your vote on the base of a Sigma 35mm F1.4  DG HSM lens for Canon and send it to intrepid librarian, c/o King County Correctional Facility.


She's saying, "You are forgiven everything, Mama."

She’s saying, “You are forgiven everything, Mama.”

I’d like to end this post with a poem. I happened to catch The Writer’s Almanac on NPR the other day, during which Garrison Keillor read out a poem entitled, “For a Five-Year-Old.” It resonated, so I’d like to share the piece here, annotated with the sensations that blossomed in my mind as the poem opened itself to me:

For a Five-Year-Old, by Fleur Adcock

Oh, how lovely. The Puppy will be five soon;

maybe I’ll write this poem in his birthday card.

A snail is climbing up the window-sill

into your room, after a night of rain.

Maybe I’ll start a tradition of giving

my kids poems on their birthdays.

You call me in to see and I explain

that it would be unkind to leave it there:

I wish I shared more of my

literary interests with them.

It’s not too late.

it might crawl to the floor; we must take care

that no one squashes it.

Yes! This will be perfect for Puppy

You understand,

and carry it outside, with careful hand,

to eat a daffodil.

He may not appreciate it now,

but when he’s older, he’ll read the

poems I selected for him and know—

all over again—that I love him.


I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:

your gentleness is moulded still by words

from me,

How sweet.

who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,

from me,


who drowned your kittens,


who betrayed your closest relatives and who purveyed

the harshest kind of truth to many another,

Oh crap.

But that is how things are: I am your mother,

And we are kind to snails.

Well… I can’t argue with that.

*Yes, the Kitten is also aging—at pretty much the same rate as Puppy. I only focused on Puppy here because I opened my previous post with a mention of his four-and-a-half-year milestone, and I figured it would be all flow-y if I opened this post similarly. Of course, you’d have to have read the previous post recently to appreciate the parallels… I’m not worried, though, because when I get a book deal, the only lag between posts will be in the amount of time it takes one to turn the page.

**Happened. Still wrote this post.

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